Fantasy Dim Sum: Ainsley and Stella

What’s up, everybody. Happy Thursday!

Today we’re at it again: serving up a couple short scenes that wind up tying together in the end. Rather than overdoing the intro, I’m just going to let them speak for themselves.

Without further adieu…

Part 1: ‘Ainsley, Justicar of Taldastius

Ainsley stood still at the edge of the forest glade, loosing the deep breath with the slow, practiced control her work demanded. Her eyes took in the scene with that same calm measure as her plated boots clinked their tread through the soft grass. A gentle wind danced through the muted green, brushed her cheeks, tossed her hair, and carried the scent of blood – the scent of a haunting life she’d left behind.

While her task required attention, Ainsley’s focused mind would not carry the nightmares of that life. For a time, she would not be molested by thoughts of the clans her brother-and-sisters-in-arms had scattered; she would not burden herself with the memories of their screams; she would not shudder at the knowledge she held of that which corroded the earth, shattered rock, and sundered the skies. A “dishonorable discharge” it had been called, but a system of mock honor that burns and destroys the undeserving to protect its own interests held no place to judge her. No longer holding station among the zealous Elves of the Iron Fang, she had found the freedom to wander. Unwelcome by many, hated by some, Ainsley turned Nameless – finding work and a place in the darkest recesses of Mundas, thanklessly facing the nightmares that plagued its people.

And this way she lived for many years until came such a time as any for those that live the Nameless way, and she found herself ready to die as such. She had stood in a moonlit glade then as well, slowly kneeling ready to dash the lunar-gray grasses with the crimson of her life’s blood. As she had held the blade high and saw in its reflection the pale of the moon, the sight of it filled her mind and heart with a vision:

We that follow are the light that stands amid the dark and guides the helpless through its shroud.”

The Oath and its Moon Strictures now decorating the flesh of her back, her life as a Justicar of Taldastius had begun only weeks later; her stride now set with a righteous purpose beyond murky survival.

As her footfalls strode quietly through the glade, shield at her side and sword gleaming brightly in the moonlight, Ainsley heard the choking, strained gasps more clearly the nearer she drew. The girl was young, no more than twenty winters behind her, with raven black hair and eyes with blue that pierced the pallid night. The acrid smell in the air, the jagged, raking marks down the girl’s arms, and the thick, speckled quills that perforated her petite form told Ainsley more than enough: Howlers.

Normally cowardly, netherplane-dwelling beasts, something had brought them here. The girl looked up at Ainsley, lips quivering, dark trails streaking from the corners of her mouth, and unable to speak. The Justicar held the young girls gaze for a time before turning her own to a rustling in the encompassing treeline.

They were coming.

END

The Take: So, there are a couple of lore points from the larger world at work here to address that might help, might not.
Ainsley is a Justicar (or paladin-variant, basically) of Taldastius, Steward of the Moon, Keeper of the Scales, Lord of Justice, n’ all else. The Moon is the Order’s totem and it represents them in the way Ainsley’s vision outlines: they fight against the dark by living in it, but without becoming it (if that makes sense). I could go on for pages, but that’s the gist and we have more to get to (this is supposed to be bite-sized, after all).
The Iron Fang are essentially a state-funded volunteer corps of defense against the dragon nests north of the Continent. They’re comprised of zealots, desperate sods, religious nutters, social outcasts – anyone and everyone. It’s members are highly revered, though, normally only after they’ve died – being criticized and berated in life by society at large. They’re organized strictly, and when one falls out of their ranks (is insubordinate, flees, or otherwise shows cowardice), they become “Nameless,” the world’s equivalent to Witchers, basically; only finding work as mercenaries and monster-hunters.

On to the next!

Part 2: Stella Fairbay, Heiress of Shale

Stella watched the diminutive ceramic dancer slowly twirl in its place within the open music box. A slight smile spread across her narrow lips as she listened to the soft chiming sung by the inner springs and coils. She watched the last of the day’s warm sunlight glimmer and reflect off its polished curves, and these feelings left her mind awash in memories – though they now seemed so distant.

The years of her youth were of gilded halls and ballrooms, long hours in formal court, and a deep-rooted yearning to part with it all, though never once betraying her family’s storied lineage. As with many of the women in her ancestry, Stella held a particularly strong sway over the magical forces of Mundas, and nothing interfered with that secret more greatly than the life of royalty. Her potential was held captive by the very privilege which provided for her, so she stole away one night to walk the wanderer’s path and develop her talents. Her only farewell: a letter addressed to her grandmother, the ruling Duchess of Shale, mentor to Stella in her youngest years, and, moreover, only living family-by-blood left in the Duchy.

Stella fluttered her eyelids to blink the memories away and she found her vision focusing beyond the now silent toy dancer to the reflection of her own eyes in the mirror of the box’s lid. She held the sight for a breath then looked up to behold the moon, feeling now that it was almost time. It had taken many months to find this place and Stella would be damned if she’d spent that time tracking down the proper charts, conferring with members of the Channelers’ Fold, and preparing the necessary charms only to miss her window distracted by nostalgia.

The young witch carefully closed the music box and stowed it within her black, silver-laced robes. She stood sharply and grasped the spear-staff at her side, an heirloom from her late grandfather. Stella marched with conviction to the edge of a summoner’s circle she’d constructed when the sun had been high, looked up to see the moon nearing its zenith, and an eager laugh escape her lips as she began her incantation, ready to open the way. Her eyes whited over with a milky paleness to mimic the moon and the ground beneath her feet felt as if to hum in harmony with her low tone.

Slowly, like fireflies drifting in the veil of night, glowing sigils began to form out of the cold air and weave together in the bounds of her circle. A complete silence took the glade before a loud snap broke the air and a bright font of light burst forth from the ground. In a matter of moments, Stella knew, if she had done her work correctly, she would be face-to-face with an angelic archon.

As the last of the arcane light faded from the circle, an unexpected darkness shrouded the glade. Stella rubbed her eyes so they might adjust and whispered a word to her staff for light. As she did so, a horrible sense of dread fell upon her like a cloak and she heard a clicking, guttural snarl. The moments of Stella’s life to follow would be remembered only as a panicked blur.

A haunting, shrieking howl pierced the still quiet.

Her chest and arms pained by slashes of unseen claws.

She was knocked breathless against the cool, damp grass.

Stella awaited the death knell from whatever infernal creatures her tragic mistake had summoned, though it never came. She could hear them, feel them encircling her, as her vision slowly darkened until a vibrant silver light beamed from the edge of the glade and the creatures retreated from it. A woman in silver and blue plate armor stood over her, beautiful and scarred, she peered down at Stella with a look of sympathy. A noise from the glade’s edge stole the woman’s attention for a moment, and when her gaze returned to the young witch her eyes burned a brilliant silver that shone against the dark backdrop of the stars.

The woman whispered a soft, chiming tone and Stella coughed. While still in great pain, she could feel a relieving warmth spread across her body where there had been agony moments before. Seeing the young woman stable, the paladin dashed across the muted gray forest floor, her blade shining white with fire. Stella craned her neck to watch as her savior cleaved down the first two beasts in a matter of moments and briefly wrestled with a third, a terrible fray of shouts and visceral crunches, while the remaining pack closed in around. With a desperate, heaving breath, Stella sat up and looked on as long, sharp quills like those that had pierced her struck the paladin between areas of her plate. Focusing through the tormenting pain and hurried anxiety of her circumstance, Stella forced herself into trance.

The paladin fought from her back, swinging this way and that to ward away the encroaching pack, when she felt the ground beneath her shake. The howlers seized the moment of her hesitation and moved to leap upon their meal, but could not feel the ground beneath their gnarled paws. She watched as the remaining pack was lifted above the grass and pulled, flailing viciously, over to the girl in black robes, now standing with spear in one hand and the other extended towards the creatures. Quills were shaken and shot forth in Stella’s direction, though they splintered to harmless flakes in the air around her. The howlers were forced to the grass, dragged by an invisible hand to the circle from which they’d emerged and, like water through cloth, disappeared beneath the ground.

From across the moonlit glade, the two women locked eyes for the second time and together shared a well-earned sigh of relief.

END

The Take: There you have it, a bad-ass, scarred up warrior lady and a reckless, mystical witch woman ruining a gaggle of otherworldly beasties. Always fun. I always liked Stella’s half for tying in and really showing off Ainsley’s badassery, plus alluding to some other world-bits we’ll explore a bit more deeply later.

Probably put up the others of this little “mini-series” tomorrow rather than waiting until Tuesday. Til then, you take it easy and stay beautiful, you.

Ciao.

F*ck it, we’ll do it live!

Happy Thursday, everybody.

Normally I try to plan these out at least a little bit, but about half of them have been the result of me looking at the clock on a Tuesday or Thursday and going: “…hmm, was I- oh, shit!”

Today’s one of those, but we’re going to put a spin on it. Rather than frantically digging through files to grab a story, quotes, or whatever, we’re going to do a prompt on the fly (sort of).

A couple of weeks ago, friend and fellow blogger over at Writing up a Sanctuary and I traded writing prompts. Since then, I’ve been making empty promises to flesh it out and make something of it.

Empty…until now.

There’s no way for you to know this besides trusting me, but at the time of writing THIS line, I’m setting a clock for thirty minutes and am just going to try and get this thing out. If time runs out before I’m done, you’ll know because it will just…end. But we’ll see how it goes!

Okay, so, first things first, the prompt: An inmate is found dead in his cell. He’s covered in burns and blisters, but nothing else in the room shows damage from a fire. What happened, who dunnit?

Sweet, now that we’re all caught up, we hit the timer and start seeing what the hell to do with it, starting in…

Oh! And it should be noted I’m not going to edit this. So everything here will be as it was first written down and left like that. So if there are some typos that I sped past…I mean, c’mon.

Anyway,

3…

2…

1…

Now.

The Burned Man

“Hey, Jeff. You might wanna see this.”

The prison guard motioned to his coworker and the two stood over the body. Still in his prison orange, the corpse of inmate #2471 (known as “James” to his mom and “Pipe Wrench” to his fellow inmates) lie curled in the middle of his cell like a dead spider. His skin was bright red, peeled, and cracked. Blisters covered his neck, the back of his hands, and other exposed (former) areas of skin.

The thing that both men found strange was that while he looked badly burned, the rest of the room – even the clothes on his body – were untouched. The other thing was, neither guard mourned his loss.

Inmate #2471 Pipe Wrench was kind of a dick.

“You find him like this?”

“Yup.”

“You radioed it in yet?”

“Nope.”

“Think we should?”

“Yup.”

Ninety minutes later, Detective Alvarez was standing at the edge of the cell while the crime scene photos were taken. He was chewing on a toothpick and switched sides of his mouth every time the camera flashed. This one was new: a man covered in burns with no evidence besides.

The guards had given their two cents (each, so not even a nickel in all). Their theory was that he was beaten to death, probably burned with grease from the kitchen where he was often stationed to work as “torture or something”, then dumped back in his cell.

When Alvarez asked why his clothes were perfectly clean and untouched, the two guards just looked at each other then back to Alvarez with blank looks. “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumbass, were better off checking clocks and counting cocks, in the detectives mind, but they might have had something with the relocation aspect of their (stupid) theory.

The camera flashed, and something caught the detective’s eye. He gave the photographer the sign to take a break and stepped over Pipe Wrench’s body to his cot. The thing which had caught his eye was the reflection off the camera’s flash that came from a metallic clip under the inmate’s bed. He held it between his thumb and forefinger. “Suds n’ Buds Laundry” was decoratively engraved on the clip. He walked back to the Tweedles.

“You guys ever seen one of these?”

“Um,” said Tweedle Dee, scratching his chin. “In the laundry room, I think.”

Tweedle Dumbass just nodded in agreement.

Alvarez sighed and rubbed his temples. “Anything else you want to add? Did the inmate ever work in the laundry room?”

Both Tweedles shook their heads.

Detective Alvarez shook his head, pocketed the clip, and headed to the laundry room. As he left, Tweedle Dumbass called out, “Oh wait! He was in the laundry!”

Alvarez spun around with interest.

“He just got his jumpers cleaned. That’s all. But he WAS there.” The guard looked proud of himself.

Alvarez gave a weak spirited thumb’s up and made for the laundry room. Once there, he asked around, made his inquiries, and poked in all the corners. Nothing. He combed through the equipment to look for blood-covered murder weapons, smoking guns, confession notes – anything. Eventually, he came to the detergents and big industrial washers and noticed something off. One of the containers had a blue lid instead of white. He dug it off the shelf, sifted some through his fingers to see if the marked container had hidden contraband or evidence, but found none. He put the detergent back and inspected the washer beneath it.

“Hey,” he called to an inmate working nearby. “Any chance this washer or detergent was used to clean Pipe Wrench’s jumpers?”

“Dunno, man. Pro’ly.”

“Cool, thanks.”

And like that, Alvarez was out of luck. A mysterious case that had gone cold right as it started. A burned man with no fire damage to his cell. No smell of smoke. No fires on prison grounds around the time of the murder. The only thing he had to go on was motive, but the problem there was that most everyone had motive.

Inmate #2471 was kind of a dick, after all.

As he got back in his car, he reached for the AC. Mid-July in Georgia meant it was hot as hell. Soon, Alvarez started itching at his hand. Then started wiping it with his shirt. It went from itching to burning. Then from burning, to burning bad. He reached for a bottle of water under the passenger seat (his car was cluttered) and poured it on his hand in a panic, but that only made the pain explode. Just shy of screaming, he reached for a bottle of Muscle Milk he’d picked up that morning but hadn’t finished, and dumped it on the sizzling skin. Soon, the insane burning subsided and Alvarez’s eyes went wide.

He knew what happened.

Whoever had laundered Pipe Wrenches jumpsuit had “powdered” it with some kind of dehydrated sulfuric acid after it dried, hidden in a detergent container. After Pipe Wrench put it on and started to sweat, he burned up just like that.

Alvarez ran back into the prison to present his findings and round up a suspect list of inmates working in the laundry room, but those efforts proved fruitless. It seemed that while he knew how the deed got done, who did it- [END TIME]

FIN

The Take: Aaaaaah! Right up to the end. But you get it, basically the killer gets away because “Pipe Wrench was a dick,” but overall I think we did okay here. I was going to go for a [SPOILER ALERT TURN BACK NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN ‘MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS’] Murder on the Orient Express take wherein the whole prison was in on it, just with a suuuuper cheesey and dumb motive. The thought process in the beginning went something like this: “Type, just type. Whatever comes to mind, go with it. Fill time while we think on what happened. Fire? Nah. Relocated? Eeeeh, nah. What burns withou- ah! Chemical burns. Cool, cool. Now how’d he get them? Aaah, shit. His clothes are untouched for the mystery, so…detergent? No! Detergent gets SWAPPED! Aha!” so on and so forth until we got the weird thingy here.
So…yeah…that’s “The Burned Man”. Taaaaa-daaaaa.

Haha, I’ll see you guys Tuesday.

PS – I have NEEEEEEWS! Another story of mine, “The Scars of Eliza Gray”, is currently in the works to be featured on the NIGHT LIGHT horror podcast in a few weeks. So stayed tuned, ’cause I’ll be posting updates as I get them and blasting it out there once it’s up! Also keep an eye out and an ear open for the episode where we discuss and give our takes on Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and “Us”! Yaaaaay!

A Gift for Cer’lliarah

Happy Thursday, all..

Let’s do things a little bit backwards today and have our dessert first.

The Take: This one, like a couple of others, came together in about an hour and without any sort of grand idea that inspired it. A scene came to mind and next thing I knew I was obsessively pounding keys until it was done – kind of like the drug hazes or super-focused power montages in movies.
One of my favorite parts about this one is that it was the first time ever in a story that I described someone’s nipples. (Funny story about that, too. I wrote it in the cafeteria of the local junior college and when I got to the part about describing nudity, I checked over my shoulder probably twice, sheepishly feeling like I was somehow getting away with something.)
Anyway, I hope it paints as crisp and glittering a picture in your mind as it arrived in mine.
[Oh! And fun fact: the gift presented in this story wound up inspiring the namesake of the story I’m probably THE most proud of to-date, one I’m currently shipping around to different publishers. You’ll know if/when it gets picked up because that’s probably all this blog will be about the week that it does.]

A Gift for Cer’lliarah

Dorian drew the curtain of moss aside and stepped into the grotto. It was a cavernous space with dark stone walls that glittered like the night sky. Softly lapping waves of a ghostly tide gently foamed at his boots and a beam of moonlight hung over a small central island from which a song chimed harmoniously with its own echo. The words were sweet, indiscernible but melodious, and filled the young duke-to-be with a tingling sense of ecstasy. He was nervously straightening his jerkin and pulling it flat when he saw her step out from a silver pond between two pines.

Cer’lliarah, the water nymph. It was said that she had only ever taken three mortal men, and all three had become kings. Many had tried to curry her favor, but none other than the kings had returned. Besides a gown of transparent water silk, she was completely nude. She was petite in frame, but had long, slender legs and dark hair that flowed down to dimples on her lower back. Her body was completely bare and smooth with fair skin and shapely breasts with perfect, light pink nipples. She blinked at him coquettishly from her island with large nutmeg eyes and beckoned him to her before gracefully retreating from view.

Dorian greedily delved into his pocket and fumbled out a gleaming topaz on a silver chain. Lowering to his knees, he dipped the precious stone into the lapping waves. The jewel glowed brightly a moment and dissolved into the water. A rumble sounded in the grotto and a land bridge slowly foamed out of the waters before him. It had taken scores of ships and fine soldiers to bring him a leviathan’s tear, the only offering Cer’lliarah would accept, but their families had been compensated fairly from the treasury and it would be worth it once the nymph confirmed his destiny as king. His uncle had made a terrible tyrant for Kandar and Dorian’s father was determined to remove his brother from the throne. This would be as close to a bloodless coup as he was liable to get, and he’d entrusted the honor to his son.

Dorian crossed the path trying to maintain a nobility to his stride, but he slipped almost every other jittery step. He had never taken a woman before, so the thought of bedding the legendary nymph made him horribly anxious. That anxiety melted away, however, when he stepped into the island’s small, central glade and saw her laying in wait on a bed of flowers and heather. She rose and began wordlessly removing Dorian’s clothes. As she did, he searched for her eyes, but they were lowered, brushing their sight over his emerging nakedness. When she did look up and meet his eyes, the nerves swiftly returned. They were more beautiful, more enchanting beyond anything in his dreams, and held an ageless, gentle innocence that made him forget the world’s evils, time, even his own body.

He was so taken with their deep golden color he didn’t feel the pain in his back.

The young noble placed his hands on her hips and felt his way to her bosom, quaking in anticipation as her hands did the same. She felt his arms, draped them over his shoulders, and let her hands dance on his chest. They finally fell on the pendant he wore, an emerald from his mother, and she kissed him on the cheek as she undid the clasp. He opened his mouth to protest, but a noticeable pain in the back of his neck caught the words in his throat. He realized he couldn’t move. She met his eyes again and this time Dorian saw himself in their reflection.

He watched his cheeks and jawline become sharpened and defined, his neck and shoulders lost their adolescent chubbiness and grew muscled, and a thick, regal beard adorned his face. His eyes hardened with the wisdom and sacrifices of a just ruler and a great jeweled crown formed on his head. He saw he was the full vision of the ruler he might have become.

Cer’lliarah clasped the pendant around her own neck and took Dorian’s hands from her breasts and crossed them over his own shoulders. The unseen tendrils that had woven their way into his torso now stitched across his limbs and fastened them to his trembling body. She played with the emerald and lay back down on her bed of flowers and heather. He choked on his pleas, but she only smiled up at him with her large, nutmeg eyes as the tendrils lifted him to the ceiling of the grotto. While he couldn’t turn his head, his eyes wildly searched the grotto’s walls and he saw all around him the calcified remains of those who had also come before to entreat the nymph’s favor.

And had also failed.

FIN

PS – I have NEEEEEEWS! Another story of mine, “The Scars of Eliza Gray”, is currently in the works to be featured on the NIGHT LIGHT horror podcast in a few weeks. So stayed tuned, ’cause I’ll be posting updates as I get them and blasting it out there once it’s up! Also keep an eye out and an ear open for the episode where we discuss and give our takes on Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and “Us”! Yaaaaay!